Recording Drums

Updated: Aug 28

A general note on recording acoustic instruments

Microphones have been used for a long time in creative ways and we have become accustomed to the way close mic’ed instruments sound.


However, most musical instruments are not designed to be listened to close up.

Some have been developed to project at large distances, for example trumpets and drums.

Many have developed to be well balanced in particular configurations - string quartet, percussion ensembles in Cuban. African and Brazilian music, brass bands, and many more.

It is easy to see why it can be difficult to balance instruments when they outside their ‘natural habitat’.

For example a drumkit (developed as a one-person marching band rhythm section) and a double bass (a chamber music instrument): 90db vs 75db - the drumkit is perceived roughly 3 times as loud as an unamplified double bass.

(Note: the decibel scale is not linear and somewhat complex. A good explanation can be read here: https://trace.umd.edu/docs/2004-About-dB)

The closer you are to an instrument, the less you will hear the overall sound, but rather you will hear more of the different aspects of the overall sound, depending which part of the instrument you are close to.

This will also depend on the physical size of the instrument. Hence positioning of the microphone for a large instrument (double bass, drumkit, piano, etc.) is crucial.

Think of recording a choir. The closer you move your microphone to the singers, the more you will pick up a section, or even only an individual singer.


You can experience this when you move a microphone around an instrument in close proximity (wearing headphones).

This is a great way to discover good - and also potential creative - microphone positions.

Mike Stavrou talks about ‘Chasing the Flame’ in his wonderful, at times slightly esoteric, book ‘Mixing with your mind’

https://www.mixingwithyourmind.com


The drumkit is quite a unique instrument to record:

  • It consists of many different instruments and covers a wide range of frequencies including harmonics.

  • While there is a standard set up (bass drum, snare drum, 2 or 3 tom toms, hihat and cymbals), drum kits can be arranged in multitude of individualistic and creative ways.

  • It occupies a fair amount of floor space.

  • It can be very loud (with peaks of up to 120 db).

  • The sound of drums (and to a degree cymbals) can me hugely manipulated and altered by tuning, muffling, putting items on the drums.

Tuning drums is different form tuning most other instruments. There are many ways to tune a drum. This makes it very versatile, great fun, but it can also be a tricky.

Experiment with moving your ear - for obvious reasons this needs to be done at low volume! - or a microphone close to a drum while striking it.


You will find the fundamental note is loudest in the centre. The further you move towards the rim, the more you will hear the harmonics (‘lug notes’), which are not as 'straight forward' as the harmonics on most other instruments.

Because you can’t put a microphone in the middle of the batter head, it is difficult to easily pick up the fundamental note (an exception being the bass drum). Hence you will see that tom and snare microphones, which need to be set up near or over the rim, are often angled towards the centre of the drum.

Here is a scientific, but highly interesting article: http://circularscience.com/about-drums

NOTE: I will write a separate blog about drum tuning.

Microphone Choices - Basic Considerations

  • Apart from the room (see below) - an aspect possibly beyond your control and your budget outside some simple treatments [There will be a separate blog about this] - microphones are the most crucial part of the recording chain. The rule ‘what you pay for is what you get’ very much applies here. Luckily there are many offerings on a more budget conscious side. A good and versatile microphone may well be a purchase for life. Microphones for redoing drums should have a high SPL, or Sound Pressure Level (i.e., be able to withstand loud attack sounds). As you might also want to record other instruments or voice you should choose a microphone that can handle this as well.

  • Preamps and A/D Interfaces and software are less crucial. These items are also something you are more likely to upgrade over time (you may need more channels, for example). There are many A/D interfaces that include phantom powered channels (necessary to operate condenser microphones). I would suggest to start with a four channel unit, especially if you want to record drums.

  • What is the recording for? Demos, Commercial Release, Coproductions & Collaboration, Commercial (Drum Tracks). If the purpose is to produce demos or record to be able to listen back yourself, there is no need for a large and expense selection of microphones. If your room sounds halfway reasonable, then a microphone that attaches to your phone/table or a USB microphone may well be enough. For pretty much everything else, you will want to look some higher quality products.

A Note about the Room

Rooms that were not designed with acoustics in mind tend to have parallel walls, floors and ceilings. This leads to standing waves (frequencies that bounce between the surfaces and become amplified because of their particular wave length/pitch).

High frequencies are easier to manipulate (curtains on walls and windows; carpets on the floor). Some 'clutter', for example book shelves (with books)and other furniture can work well as diffusers.

Low frequency issues are much harder to deal with as is isolation from outside noise (or noise from your room to the outside).


The ‘worse’ your room sounds, the closer you will want to set up your microphones. This is easier with the drums, less so with overheads. Close up mic’ing of cymbals may need to be considered, but can be difficult not least because cymbals physically move more than drums (also have a listen close up to the frequencies than emanate from a cymbal! Even a small cymbal can sound like a gong!).

How many microphones?

One Microphone

If you have a good room, a good and well tuned kit and a good player, you could probably get away with one good microphone, which would have to be able to capture the large frequency range of the drum kit.

The room would need to be good sounding, as the microphone won’t be able to be set up too close. Plus it should also be set up in front of the kit to capture the entire instrument (including the bass drum, which is the only drum that faces towards the audience).

When talking about one microphone, it could also mean a stereo microphone.

I have recorded a drum kit and many other instruments with great results in my studio (acoustically designed) using an AEA R88 or my AKG C426B.

A stereo microphone can have advantages, such as easier set up (one microphone stand) and, chiefly, it has no phase issues. However, it is not as versatile as two separate mono microphones.

A good and well placed condenser microphone can also work well as a mono recording.

Two Microphones

Very good results can be achieved using 2 microphones: 1 Overhead + 1 Bass Drum, even with a mono overhead.

When using an overhead microphone, the only drum ‘facing the wrong way’ is the bass drum and therefore can be underrepresented in the overall sound.

Here is a good overview of stereo recording techniques:

https://www.shure.com/en-US/performance-production/louder/five-techniques-for-stereo-miking-drums

There is a technique called ‘Recorderman’, which works without a bass drum microphone, but uses two unusually placed overhead.

http://jonstinson.com/the-recorder-man-drum-miking-technique/


Three Microphones

Depending on the sound field you prefer, there are several options:

2 x Condensers (overheads) + 1 large diaphragm Dynamic (bass drum)

or

1 x Condenser (overhead) + 2 Dynamic microphones (large & small diaphragm).

This set up could be expand to a stereo Condenser setup buying a second one of the same model .

The Glyn Jones recording set up uses three microphones:

https://www.recordingrevolution.com/the-glyn-johns-drum-recording-method/

https://www.musictech.net/tutorials/technique-of-the-week-glyn-johns-method/

https://ny.garnishmusicproduction.com/production/drum-miking-techniques/


Four Microphones

A classic setup would be 2 x Condensers (overheads) + 1 large diaphragm Dynamic (bass drum) + 1 small diaphragm (snare drum)

Five & More Microphones

Depending on the style of music you might like to have more control over the separate aspects of the drum kit, especially HiHat and Toms.

Note: The more microphones are used, the more phase and delay issues can occur, which will need to be taken care of in the mix.

Following is a list of the most used microphones for recording drums at Pughouse Studios (which was designed and built as a recording studio).


Overheads

AEA R88

AKG C426B

Microtech Gefell M930 (pair)

also (pairs): Earthworks TC25, Neumann U89, Neumann-Gefell M692 (M70, M94), Oktava 012 (Michel Joly), Audio Technica AT4080, Audio Technica AT4050

Bass Drum

AKG D112

Sennheiser e602

also: Royer R121, ElectroVoice N/D 868, Heil PR48, Beyerdynamic M88, TLM103

Snare Drum

Beyerdynamic M201TG, ElectroVoice N/D468, SM57, Beyerdynamic M160, Sennheiser MD421, Heil PR28

Toms

Heil PR28, Sennheiser MD421, Oktave 012 (MJ)

Hihat

Neumann KM84, Earthworks P30/C, Beyerdynamic M160

Room

AEA R88

AKG426C

U89 (pair)

AKG 414 XLII

Also

Copperphone, Copperphone Mini, AT 849

I have uploaded drumkit stems from several recordings, including a screenshot of the Pro Tools session, each with a different microphone setup. You can download them here

You can then also import them in your DAW. Files are 320 kpbs mp3.


From 'Horizontal Quartet' - Live Recording at The JazzLab

Mirko Guerrini (tenor sax), Andrea Keller (piano), Tamara Murphy (bass), Niko Schauble (drums).

Album available on Bandcamp

Three Microphones

Overhead: Audio Technica AT4080

Bass Drum: AKG D112

Snare Drum: Beyerdynamic M201TG










From Michael Harding Trio, recorded at Pughouse Studios

Michael Harding (piano), Kim May (bass), Niko Schauble (drums)

Listen here

Three Microphones (including stereo overhead)

Overhead (stereo): AKG426C

Bass Drum: AKG D112

Snare Drum: Beyerdynamic M160











From Acquacheta, recorded at Pughouse Studios. Unreleased

Nine Microphones

Overhead LR: 2 x Microtech M930

FOK (Front Of Kit): Beyerdynamic M88

Bass Drum front: Neumann TLM 103

Bass Drum back: AKG D112

Snare Drum: Electrovoice N/D 468

HiHat: AKG C419

Floor Tom: Heil PR28

Rack Tom: Heil PR28
















From Nick Haywood Trio, recorded at Pughouse Studios. Unreleased

Nine Microphones

Overhead LR: 2 x Microtech M930

Overhead Centre: Royer R121

Bass Drum front: Neumann TLM 103

Bass Drum back: Electrovoice N/D 868

Snare Drum: Sennheiser MD421

HiHat: AKG C419

Floor Tom: Heil PR28

Rack Tom: Heil PR28




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